Designing a Hall Table - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Design Project: There are so many things you can learn from past projects, in order to improve your next project. Find out what this amateur woodworker learned about designing a hall table, and see what he did to improve his next project – another hall table.


Designing a Hall Table

Photos by Ryan Sparreboom

In the spring of 2011, good friends of ours moved into a beautiful new home and I decided to build them a housewarming gift. After some deliberation, I settled on a hall table. To me, a hall table is something that can be both useful and artistic in a new home and allows me to express my creative side. The design process for that table followed the process I use for almost all of my woodworking projects: rough sketches, some brief notes, some deep thought, usually followed by a few more rough sketches. After I feel I have a good idea of how I want things to look, the materials I want to use, and some of the key design features, I move to some large paper on my kitchen table for a full-scale drawing.

The first decision to make in designing this table was the materials. I chose birdseye maple for the table’s top because it is a beautiful feature wood and a favourite of the intended recipients. I prefer to use contrasting woods in my work, and chose roasted curly maple for the base of this table. The roasting process darkens the maple throughout and provides just the kind of contrast I was looking for. The curly figure in the maple can make the piece look a bit more rustic than I was trying to achieve, so I decided to add some cocobolo feet and inlay to the project, and keep some gentle curves in the table so that it still held a classy look. The next step was to decide on some key design features. I wanted the table to have a drawer because it’s a good place to put keys and other small items that shouldn’t clutter a tabletop. The actual shape of the legs, aprons, and top was a culmination of personal preference and classical style to give the overall table design the look and feel that I thought the recipients would appreciate.

Table #1 – Sparreboom made this hall table as a gift for a friend. When he was asked to build another similar table, he wanted to fine-tune the design with the knowledge he gained from making this table.

Lots of Options – A drawer adds handy storage, but has certain requirements. Sparreboom decided to build the second table without a drawer, allowing him more freedom with the overall design.
Ask Around
After completing that table, I posted photos and a small write-up of it on the Canadian Woodworking Magazine forum. I often post my projects as a personal learning tool to get valuable feedback and opinions on my work from my peers. With the feedback I received, as well as feedback from the new owners of the table, and some personal thoughts on how it turned out, I can turn around and make my next project even better. Like many woodworkers, improving on my own designs is one of my key goals. While the table was well received by my friends and woodworking peers, I did get some suggestions on how to improve it. By the end of 2011, it was time to build another hall table, and this time I decided to change a few things.

Again, there was the choice of materials. While I really liked the roasted curly maple, it is expensive and I didn’t have more of it. I also felt that, to some degree, the curly figure in the base took away from the top – the main feature of the table. I also found out the table was a bit too top heavy, especially with the drawer. In fact, it had been tipped over by my friend’s toddler, smashing an ornament that was on top (fortunately, no one was hurt!). After considering all the advice I received, I made a number of changes to the second table:

• Use a heavier wood for the base (Jatoba a.k.a. Brazilian cherry)
• Increase the contrast within the table
• Remove the drawer
• Make the aprons thinner, and thus lighter
• Add curve to the ends of the top
• Redesign the legs to have a lower center of gravity while still keeping a pleasing classy look
• Sometimes less is more when it comes to colour and figure in a piece.
When designing the second table, I again followed my normal practice: sketch, notes, thoughts, more sketches, and a full-size drawing. In addition to the above changes to resolve the top-heaviness issue, I wanted some aesthetic changes as well. It was suggested to me that the square-ended tabletop did not flow well. I agreed, and decided to curve the ends of the top as well. In the first table, I bevelled the underside of each end of the top, which looked good on paper, but once I had it cut on the table top I immediately regretted it, so that would go, as well.

Full Size – To give him a better idea of the details, Sparreboom made a full-sized drawing. It also gave him something to refer to when making templates.

The Gang – To ensure all the legs were the same size, they were ganged together during final shaping operations.
The Apron – An Easy Decision
I have built tables before that have no drawer in them, and I have also come to really like a floating top design. I tossed that idea around for quite some time, hesitating between using that feature or not. Doing so may change the table too much and take it from a “redesign” to a total new design. The decision on this wasn’t made until I settled on a shape for the aprons. I decided that without the drawer, the front apron needed a slightly different look. I didn’t change it much, but added a second upswept curve and spaced them apart, instead of having one centered upsweep. This also changed the look of the meeting point between the apron and the legs, giving it a more gradual and unified appearance. After drawing that to full scale, I knew immediately that the aprons needed one more change: a curve on the top. With a curve on the top of the aprons, the top had to float, so that decision followed with ease.

A Slight Taper – To give the table a lower visual center, a gentle taper was machined into the legs with a sled.

A Nice, Even Top – The birdseye maple top was taken from a single, wide board, in order to keep the grain and colour uniform.
Shapely Legs
When deciding on the shape of the legs, I really didn’t want to change too much. I really liked the shape of the first tables’ legs, and so did everyone else. I considered only changing the type of wood used for the feet, but I decided to sketch a few ideas out and see what else I could come up with to add mass lower down. In the end, the change was a subtle thickening of the feet to give it more of a toe, a slight narrowing of the upper portion, and a reverse taper of the entire leg on the side profile. With the foot now the widest part of each leg, I decided not to use a different wood for the feet at all, keeping it all one piece. Before I cut the first piece of wood, I went over all the changes to make sure I was reaching my main objectives; a less tipsy table with some different features but still just as much class and elegance as the first.
The Build – Part II
I started the build of the second table with the most complex pieces, the legs. For me, doing this helps everything afterwards flow nicely. The entire base of this table started out as a single board of 8/4 Jatoba. After making a template of the leg shape from my full-scale drawing, I cut the leg blanks to rough size. I ensured that I kept one square face at the top of each leg where the long aprons would attach, to ease joinery later on. The curves of the legs were then cut on the band saw. To ensure that all four legs took the exact same size and shape, I clamped them together and gang-sanded them first with the belt sander, then the random orbit sander. You could use spoke shaves or a convex plane if you prefer. To make the legs more bottom-heavy, I made a simple sled for the planer to cut the reverse taper on the side profile. The taper is slight to the eye, but noticeable in balance. With that done, some more final shaping was done with the sander, and then the corners of the legs were rounded over.

I began to create the aprons by resawing the 8/4 Jatoba into thinner pieces. I jointed and planed them flat before laying out the curves that I had drawn up on the full-size sketch. During the drawing of the aprons on the sketch, one of my goals was to keep the curves consistent. To do this, I actually used the template I had created for the legs to mock the curves in the apron. This, combined with the more flowing shape of the top of the legs into the aprons, gave some consistency to the overall look and feel of the table. With the legs and aprons both shaped, it was time to focus on joining them.

The leg-to-apron joints on this table are fairly simple. For speed and ease, without sacrificing strength, I often choose a multiple dowel joint. Aligned with a jig, the dowel joints are quicker to lay out and machine than integrated mortise and tenon joints, and in my opinion, every bit as strong. I had left a flat face on the leg tops for the front and rear apron joints, but on the small side aprons, the taper of the leg came in to play. The taper only worked out to be about 1.5 degrees, but that meant the side aprons needed to be cut at that same angle and then the dowel joints fitted accordingly. This is achieved without too much difficulty by correctly shimming the dowelling jig, but if you’re not comfortable with this, the joint can also be cut before the taper on the leg is made. With the legs and aprons shaped, and the joinery for them in place, it was time to dry fit the table base together.

Inlay – A router equipped with an edge guide makes easy work of machining the inlay groove.
The Top
I chose a single, wide board of birdseye maple for the top, instead of edge joining two or more boards. I was lucky enough to have access to several 13"-plus wide boards to choose from. The board started at just over an inch thick. I placed it on the table several times before deciding on the final thickness of just over 3/4" for the right proportions. With the top thicknessed, I cut the top to final width and laid out the curves for the ends. The final dimensions of the top are 13" x 44". To add an elegant touch to the top, I like to use a thin band of inlay around the perimeter, about 1" in from the edge. Using a simple guide attached to the router base, I routed a 1/8" wide groove around the top. I glued in the inlay strip with wood glue. I ensured ahead of time that my intended inlay material will bend to the radius that I need it to for the curved ends. I am very careful to cut the inlay to length and at the correct angle to make the corner joints appear seamless. I use a fine chisel to get the joints perfect.

The Finished Table – Form, proportion and wood species all turned out looking great. It’s a classy table that will serve its owner well for years to come.
Defy Gravity
To make the top “float,” I needed to add supports between the aprons that would hold the top up and be as invisible as possible at the same time. I have found that there is a fine balance between the width of the top and the space between the legs and table top for the top to appear to float while not looking detached. I prefer at least a 1-1/2" overhang on the front and back, and a space above the legs no bigger than the thickness of the top itself. For good balance, the supports should be placed about one fifth of the way in from the ends of the table top. There are several ways that I could have attached the top supports to the aprons, but because the aprons are only 5/8" thick, I chose a stopped sliding dovetail joint for strength.

To make the sliding dovetail joints, I first laid out vertical lines on the inside of the aprons, and then clamped a straight fence to the aprons, perpendicular to the center line of the aprons, in order to guide the router. I then routed the dovetail slot in the aprons, stopping about 3/4" short of the bottom. I routed the mating dovetail tenon on the ends of the supports on the router table. After some fine-tuning, the joint fit perfectly. To attach the top to the supports, I used simple metal tabletop clips.

Once I was satisfied with the look and feel of each part, and how they fit together, it was on to final sanding, assembling, and finishing. I used a mix of mahogany stain and wipe-on poly as my first coat on the base, and wipe-on poly on the top. I like polyurethane for its durability, but it can start to look a bit too plastic-like if put on too thick. I stick to several thin coats on a piece like this, and rub out the finish with paste wax after the last coat has thoroughly dried. Once it was completed, I stood back and realized that it doesn’t take too many changes to come up with a completely new design. I like both of these tables, each one appealing to me differently, but I really enjoyed the design process and taking one piece of furniture and adapt­ing it into another. 

Dovetail Groove – A straight-edge was clamped to the underside of the two aprons so the dovetail grooves could be machined. 

Partially Assembled – First the legs and four aprons were assembled. Once dry, Sparreboom added the dovetailed supports. 

Ryan Sparreboom

Ryan enjoys using exotic hardwoods and precision tools to create fine wood­working projects in his garage shop. His family enjoys seeing him when he’s not at work and not covered in sawdust, which is rare.